For all the hype about the Bush Administration's oil-and-gas energy bias, one of its last official acts was to give the go-ahead to what could be America's first offshore wind farm -- thus enraging more than a few self-deputized environmentalists. Such are the ironies of the wilderness of mirrors known as the Cape Wind project.
For the last seven years and counting, the green entrepreneur Jim Gordon has been trying to build a fleet of wind turbines in federal waters near the upscale seascapes of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. The site seemed ideal, given the stiff ocean breezes and the eco-friendly politics in Massachusetts. The company says its 130 towers could meet 75% of the region's electricity needs and reduce carbon emissions by some 734,000 tons every year.
The sort of people who can afford to use "summer" as a verb are in favor of all that. Completely in favor, really. But they did want to raise one quibble. Unfortunately, the wind farm would create "visual pollution" in Nantucket Sound, particularly the parts within sight of their beachfront vacation homes.
Mr. Gordon went ahead anyway, and the opposition rose to gale force. Supposedly the wind farm will lead to everything from the disruption of seabird habitats to "desecrating ancient American Native burial sites," in the words of Glenn Wattley, the head of an antiwind outfit funded by the likes of Bunny Mellon. But what really upsets these well-to-do Don Quixotes is the thought of looking at windmills that would appear about as tall on the horizon as the thumbnail at the end of your outstretched arm.
Then there is the political saga, with the Kennedy family as the Hyannis Port Sopranos, supplying the muscle. While Ted Kennedy was castigating President Bush for destroying the environment, the Senator was working furiously behind the Congressional scenes to kill Cape Wind. He even had the inspiration of getting former GOP colleague Ted Stevens of Alaska to slip wording into a spending bill that would have handed a veto to then-Governor Mitt Romney, another aesthetically minded opponent. Robert Kennedy Jr., a Time magazine "hero of the planet," tried to get the Sound designated as a national marine sanctuary to bar development.
Incredibly enough, this political sabotage has so far failed. And last week the Interior Department issued its long-awaited regulatory study, mostly finding "negligible" environmental impact -- apart from a "moderate" impact on the scenery. If the Obama Administration signs off, construction could begin next year.
Mr. Kennedy blustered that the report was rushed out: amusing, considering it runs to 2,800 pages. Bill Delahunt, the windy Cape Democrat, also denounced the action as "a $2 billion project that depends on significant taxpayer subsidies while potentially doubling power costs for the region."
Good to see the Congressman now recognizes the limitations of green tech, such as its tendency to boost consumer electricity prices -- but his makeover as taxpayer champion is a bit belated. Green energy has been on the subsidy take for years, including in 2005 when Mr. Delahunt was calling for "an Apollo project for alternative energy sources, for hybrid engines, for biodiesel, for wind and solar and everything else." The reality is that all such projects are only commercially viable because of political patronage.
Tufts economist Gilbert Metcalf ran the numbers and found that the effective tax rate for wind is minus-163.8%. In other words, every dollar a wind firm spends is subsidized to the tune of 64 cents from the government. The Energy Information Administration estimates that wind receives $23.37 in government benefits per megawatt hour -- compared to, say, 44 cents for coal. Despite these taxpayer crutches, wind only provides a little under 1% of U.S. net electric generation.
We'd prefer an energy policy that allows markets to shape the sources that predominate -- which would almost certainly put Cape Wind out of business. But President Obama seems determined to unload even more subsidies on green developers as he seeks to boost renewables to 10% of the U.S. electricity mix by the end of his first term and 25% by 2025; their share today is about 9% (5.8% of which is hydropower).
We wouldn't be surprised to see the President's green future wrestled to the ground by the likes of Mr. Delahunt, the Kennedys and other anticarbon Democrats. Environmentalists love the idea of milking Mother Nature for power, but they hate the hardware needed to make it work: huge windmills, acres of solar panels, high-voltage transmission lines to connect them to the places where people live. Of course, they still totally, absolutely, wholeheartedly support green energy -- as long as it gets built where someone else goes yachting.